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Getting Real About Meth

It's easy to score. Kids think it's cool. But trying this drug "just one time" can lead to a devastating addiction. Could you spot the telltale signs if your teen were hooked?

By Meredith Maran

The Facts About Meth

The frightening headlines and news stories -- "America's most dangerous drug," "a weapon of mass destruction," "an unprecedented epidemic and crisis" -- have faded. And recent trends are encouraging: Fewer middle and high school students are abusing meth; drug seizures and lab busts are on the decline. And dire predictions of a surge of "smurfs," "strawberry quick," and other candy-flavored types of meth designed to tempt younger kids haven't come true.

Those facts, however, offer little comfort to families that have been devastated by a teen's addiction -- and no reason for parents to let down their guard. Meth is no longer the new drug on the block but has seeped into the mainstream culture, making it an even more insidious threat. Production of homemade meth is down, but "ice" is pouring in from Mexico and Canada. Once largely confined to rural areas and the West Coast, it has now spread across the country. And whether it's AMC TV's Breaking Bad, about a struggling high school chemistry teacher who becomes a meth dealer to support his wife and son, or celebs who dis the drug even as they rave about the incredible rush, meth still has a grim allure for teens. What girl wouldn't be tempted when she hears the singer Fergie describe meth as "such a fun drug at first [because] you lose weight and look great for a while" -- and as "the hardest boyfriend I ever had to break up with"?

Then there's the seductive potency of the drug itself. Snorted, smoked, or injected, meth -- which is made by cooking the pseudoephedrine from cold pills with iodine, anhydrous ammonia (fertilizer), and other common chemicals -- releases a burst of dopamine, causing an intense euphoria that can last 6 to 24 hours. But the high comes from damaging the brain's pleasure centers, making users unable to feel good from anything except more meth. New research from Brookhaven National Laboratory suggests that the drug enters the brain as quickly as cocaine but affects more regions and lingers longer. Chronic abuse can lead to paranoia, hallucinations, and violent behavior. And the harm is long lasting; more than a year after going clean, users still show severe impairment of memory, judgment, and motor coordination similar to those suffering from Parkinson's disease.

As the following stories show, it's not only meth addicts who suffer: The collateral damage to families is immense. The good news is that by talking to your kids and making them aware of the risks, you can help them say no. The Meth Project (methproject.org), a nationwide prevention group that targets 12- to 17-year-olds, says it's helped reduce the number of first-time teen users with its TV, radio, print, billboard, and Internet ads that graphically depict the horrors of addiction. "We undertook a campaign in 2005 to 'unsell' meth, reaching 70 percent of teens three times a week with our theme, 'Not Even Once,'" says Peg Shea, executive director of the project's Montana branch. After two years, the state saw a 45 percent decrease in meth use among teens and a 62 percent drop in meth-related crimes. The group has also had an impact in Arizona, where 86 percent of parents report having discussed the drug with their teen during the past year, most of them prompted by one of the group's ads. "Parents need to be tuned in to the dangers their kids are facing," says Shea. "And they need to let their kids know they're willing to discuss the problem." Read on to learn the signs of meth abuse, how to keep communication open, and other preventive measures so you can be your teen's first line of defense.

One Family's Nightmare

Wendy Macker was worried about her 15-year-old son Graham. An A student and star athlete, he'd always been an outgoing, happy kid, even after the death of his father from a heart attack 10 years earlier. But Graham had been avoiding Wendy and his two older siblings and had taken to hanging out with a rough, older crowd in Kalispell, Montana. When she did see him, he was pale and agitated, euphoric one minute and in despair the next. One day, Wendy, the owner of a small carpet company, was at work when someone broke into her home and stole all her jewelry. She suspected Graham, who denied everything. Then she confronted one of his so-called friends. He admitted to the theft and gave her the loot -- along with the shock of her life. "You should check on your own kid," he said. "Graham's been shooting meth."

Graham denied the accusation, but the guilty look on his face told Wendy he was lying. "Everything spiraled downhill after that," says Wendy, 45, recalling that terrible night in 2004. "He disappeared for days at a time, and I'd drive around town hunting him down. I'd bring him home and try to feed him -- he looked like death warmed over -- but he wouldn't eat." Graham's weight dropped from 160 to 115 pounds, and he was nearly killed in a drug deal gone bad. "They call meth 'the devil,'" says Graham, "and it brought out the devil in me. I stole from family and friends. I robbed houses. All I cared about was my next fix."

Graham and his pals preferred to shoot up in their arms, necks, and legs. A dealer once said Graham was the type who would never be able to turn back and that he expected him to die from the drug. Wendy feared the same, but didn't know how to save her son. "Once, after he'd vanished for more than a month, I found him at a friend's house with a bunch of other users," she says. "I got down on my hands and knees, begging him to come home. He did, but the next morning he was gone. I don't know what made me do it, but I drove 20 miles to the nearest train station. Graham was headed for Seattle, his pockets full of drugs. If I hadn't gotten there in time, I never would have seen him alive again."

The turning point came in 2007, after Graham was arrested yet again for possession. Wendy got a call from the Montana Meth Project, which works with local law enforcement to keep track of juvenile meth-related crimes so it can help families in trouble. Following a counselor's advice, Wendy hired two escorts to come to her home in the middle of the night, handcuff Graham and take him to a treatment program in Thompson Falls, Montana. "I was high when they came and really pissed at my mom," he says. "But if she hadn't done that, meth would've killed me." After six months of treatment, Graham, now 19, came back to Kalispell, where he's grown close to Wendy and siblings Julius, 24, and Kaitlin, 21, once again. "I still have cravings every day and attend support meetings every night," he says. "But life's worth living again. My mom thinks that's a miracle. I guess she's right."

This Is Your Teen on Meth

Signs and Symptoms
In the early stages of use, red flags include incessant talking, decreased appetite, jitteriness and anxiety, dilated pupils, and sweating. Later on, abusers develop strong body odor, tooth decay, and acne-type sores; they also become moody, alternating between angry outbursts and withdrawal. Full-blown addicts suffer extreme weight and hair loss, intense paranoia, and hallucinations.

Talking the Talk
There are many code names for meth that kids may use in your presence or with friends, such as speed, zip, uppers, go-fast, crank (and, by extension, the "Jenny Crank Diet"), crypto, chalk, bling bling, crystal, ice, quartz, glass, shabu, stove top, cinnamon, lemon drop, black beauties, spackle, trash, tina, and tweak.

Hidden Paraphernalia
Razor blades and playing cards are often used to crush meth crystals into powder. Lots of plastic straws or hollowed-out pens in the trash could mean your teen is snorting the drug; partially crushed soda cans (with small holes punched in one side), light bulbs with the bottoms and filaments removed, charred soda bottle caps or a stash of butane cigarette lighters may be evidence he's smoking or injecting it.

One in four teens surveyed say the drug is easy to acquire, and one in three see little to no danger in trying meth once or twice. (Source: The Meth Project)

Take the Offensive

You're too busy, it's awkward, your kid knows better -- parents have all sorts of excuses for not discussing meth abuse with their kids. More than half of all teens, in fact, say the subject has never been broached in their family. Since teens typically interpret silence as implicit approval, experts say you should do the following:

Dangers of Denial

If you suspect your child is using meth, get help immediately. "It's natural for parents to want to believe their kids are innocent," says Carol Falkowski, director of chemical health at the Minnesota Department of Human Services and author of Dangerous Drugs: An Easy-to-Use Reference for Parents and Professionals (Hazelden). "But if adults don't intervene, it will only cause the problem to escalate."

David Sheff, 52, author of Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction (Houghton Mifflin), learned that lesson the hard way. When his son, Nic, became hooked in high school, David refused to acknowledge the truth about the smart, precocious young man he thought he knew so well -- even after Nic began stealing money and was repeatedly hauled away in handcuffs for possession. "I had this deep-rooted image of meth being a motorcycle-gang, trailer-park drug," says David, a writer who had raised Nic in the upscale town of Inverness, not far from San Francisco. His denial made his son's recovery all the more harrowing. Nic went through a seven-year ordeal of overdosing, recovery, and relapse before finally achieving a hard-won sobriety that began, as David says ruefully, "in December of 2005 -- three years and two months ago. But who's counting, right?"

Now 25 and pursuing a master's degree in writing at Bennington College in Vermont, Nic has penned his own best-selling memoir, Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (Ginee Seo). Staying clean remains a daily struggle. His father's greatest regret? That he and his ex didn't force their son into rehab when they were legally able, if only to keep him substance-free during the critical, vulnerable stage of adolescence. "Don't worry about depriving your kid of his privacy or the right to make his own decisions," says David. "If your child is endangering himself or others, you have to act fast."

Resources and Treatment Programs

To locate a treatment program near you:

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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